eVTOL is the Future of Flight, So Why Hasn’t it Happened Yet?
Electric cars have become so commonplace that the average driver doesn’t even notice when they pull into a parking space beside a row of charging stations, but when it comes to the gas-guzzling aircraft that crisscross the country’s skies each day, advances toward electrical options aren’t exactly charged up.
It’s not that the aviation industry doesn’t want to see a shift toward electric aircraft, it’s that it’s a much trickier task to accomplish than converting a car to function without fossil fuels. That challenge, however, hasn’t stopped companies from investing heavily in research and technology that could help convert aviation to electric. A race is on to be the first to find a way to green up the industry and open up new potential for profits.
In 2017 experts estimated that 11% of U.S. transportation-related emissions came from the aviation industry, and the aviation industry hasn’t improved its environmental footprint in the way that most other transportation has. For the millions who fly frequently, it’s their travels take a serious toll on the planet each few months. Fly roundtrip from New York to California only once and you’ve already generated about 20 percent of the emissions the average car would produce over the course of a year.
That environmental footprint is also poised to grow rapidly. The International Air Transportation Association (IATA) predicts that by 2035 the number of air travelers could nearly double to a staggering 7.2 billion passengers annually worldwide. Air taxis and more accessible private flights could inflate these numbers — and the impact — even more. However, electric aircraft could translate into drastic reductions in the environmental and monetary costs associated with flight. A revolutionary flight by a two-seater electric airplane called the e-Genius in France in 2017 flew a 62-mile stretch at a total energy cost of a little more than $3.
One of the most promising pursuits in electrical aviation is vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. These VTOL aircraft are leading the way in becoming fully electric and may open up air travel to individuals in exciting new ways. A marketable electric VTOL (eVTOL) could change the entire aviation industry as it exists today.
Three things are certain: The demand for electric aircraft is here, the technology is being developed, and the future will include fossil fuel-free flight. The question is, how long will it be before electric aviation takes off?
Industry Looks Ahead to Electric Aviation
While electric aviation may not yet be here in a real, viable way, it’s definitely coming.
The record-setting flight of the e-Genius in France drew attention for its impressive climb of 20,000 feet in less than 2 minutes. An electric-powered plane called the Solar Impulse 2 took off from Abu Dhabi in 2015 and, over the course of 16 months, circumnavigated the globe fueled only by solar panels, 4 different 41 kWh lithium-ion batteries, and an electric motor. NASA is working on an electric plane prototype called the X-57 that looks nothing like the airplanes most people are used to (its long wings are thin and straight and lined with 12 small electric motors). That’s just one part of the agency’s New Aviation Horizons Project, which aims to pursue electric aviation in hopes of reducing emissions, fuel use, and noise from aircraft.
Some countries are pushing for faster change. Norway is on a quest to conduct all flights shorter than 1.5 hours using electrically-powered planes by 2040. They have already developed a plane called the Alpha Electro II that runs on batteries — though it can only seat two people.
Don’t think, though, that just because progress is happening, the move to electric aviation will be easy. The challenge of how to support aircraft that seat more people or fly longer distances continue to stump the industry’s experts, and it is generally agreed by all working on the technology that batteries aren’t yet where they need to be to see these types of aircraft shift to a widespread commercial scale.
No battery available in the world today can offer the power-to-weight ratio necessary for larger planes and flights. In fact, some experts say it could take until 2030 before battery advancements are able to sustain even a hybrid electric commercial aircraft. Even when those batteries exist, however, airlines will still face the hurdle of figuring out a cost-effective way to store and have enough batteries available (or a way to quickly charge them) for the multiple flights each aircraft would need to conduct each day.
Big Names Like Boeing Are Already Working to Develop First Electric Aircraft
It isn’t just small research teams and up-and-coming companies who are looking to a future of electric aviation, but also large companies that Americans are already familiar with.
Boeing is actively involved in the race, investing alongside JetBlue last year in a hybrid electric-aircraft startup called Zunum Aero, which is working on a 10 to 50 passenger plane that can fly up to 1,000 miles using a battery-first series hybrid propulsion system. Among Boeing’s other forays into the electric aviation world is an eVTOL cargo air vehicle prototype that they unveiled on January 10, 2018.
Airbus has been equally forward-thinking, and recently partnered with Siemens and Rolls-Royce to work together on advancing hybrid-electric propulsion for commercial aircraft. Each of the three companies will focus on their area of specialty in research and building, with Airbus taking arguably the largest role in developing the ariframe whileSiemens focuses on electronics, motors, and other systems, and Rolls-Royce takes on the engine, generator, and related systems.
What is VTOL?
Because of the limitations of battery technology, some are looking for another solution to the desire to move more people through the air with less environmental impact and cost.
Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) is not a new concept in aviation. While we are all familiar with helicopters, other aircraft, usually developed for military uses, such as the V-22 Osprey and the F35B fighter jet can both take off and land vertically. VTOL’s use has been relatively limited in the past, however, companies are looking to capitalize on its convenience and speed.
A VTOL aircraft simplifies the act of flying when compared to conventional aircraft. You minimize the need for a runaway and, in many cases, reduce the need for other modes of transportation to move you from those runways to your final destination. VTOL offers more direct point-to-point transportation, and the benefits are numerous.
From an environmental perspective, VTOL can reduce the fuel that is used during taxiing and takeoff from airport runways (as well as, potentially, time spent circling busy airports waiting for runway space). This is significant, as 25 percent of airplane emissions occur during landing and taking off, with taxiing being the biggest contributor. VTOL aircraft may also prevent the emissions generated by cars or buses that transport individuals from airports to other destinations. Taking the VTOL platform and making it electric for what the industry dubs “eVTOL” could make the energy efficiency even greater.
Safety is another aspect that could see improvement with VTOL aircraft. Some sources say that more than 85% of the total number of airplane accidents and fatalities occur during take-off and landing. The time a conventional airplane spends easing its way nearer and nearer to the earth or hurtling down a runway is when even a simple mistake or unplanned factor can have devastating consequences.
Of all the categories, however, it may be the business opportunities that are drawing the most interest in VTOL. The potential for air taxi services and other quick, convenient commercial transportation are undeniable.
VTOL Being Researched for Air Taxi Services
A multitude of companies are in pursuit of a realistic air taxi service using VTOL. Lilium, based out of Munich, has a prototype for a two-seater aircraft that, although using VTOL, looks like a conventional plane. They want to start an on-demand flying taxi service.
Here in the U.S., the Transcend Air Corporation is working on a six-seater VTOL aircraft that it would use for commuters. The company estimates they could transport customers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 55 minutes and New York to Boston in 36 minutes (at costs of $315 and $283, respectively), but don’t change your travel plans yet: It’s aiming for 2024 to offer the service.
Of all the companies wanting to enter the air taxi market, it’s arguably Uber who wants it most. The ride-sharing company that’s gone head to head with conventional taxis, sees its future in the skies, and it’s already at work to make sure it gets there.
Uber Air Taxi in the Works
Like Transcend, Uber isn’t thinking they can start their air taxi service right away, instead setting a goal of 2023, but the company has taken significant steps to try to meet that deadline.
They plan to call the service uberAIR (described by the company as “On-Demand Urban Air Transportation”) and see it being offered worldwide, with the ability to drastically reduce commute times and still be affordable (as affordable, they say, as owning a car). They even think they can make an Uber air taxi twice as safe as a conventional car.
Uber is seeking eVTOL aircraft only, with their vision being that every aircraft in operation is electric. Uber also wants the vehicles to be self-driving (though they concede that pilots will be necessary when they first launch). They won’t design and build these aircraft themselves, instead relying on more than 70 companies to find a workable solution. Among those companies is Karem Aircraft, which has been working with Uber on a Butterfly concept.
Aware of the battery technology limitations, Uber hasn’t just joined forces with aircraft design companies, but with battery companies. E-One Moli, one of the partner battery companies, will use its batteries in Uber’s eVTOL prototypes and says that they could operate for up to 84 miles on one charge.
In May of 2018, Uber held what they called the “Elevate Summit” in Los Angeles to outline their game plan to those in the industry, and they’ve made public a 98-page white paper that details the challenges and potential solutions they’re looking. The next step is to lock down launch cities. So far, they’ve signed on with Dallas and Los Angeles, but they’re still looking for an international city to join.
Hurdles — Some Deadly — Stand in the Way of a True Shift
An inevitable part of the electric VTOL aviation discussion moving forward will be safety. More Americans are afraid to fly than to get in a car, even though cars are drastically more dangerous, statistically, than airplanes, and many will hesitate to switch from driving to work to hopping into an eVTOL.
Consumer concerns won’t be the only consideration. A drastic increase in the volume of air traffic that doesn’t have to route through conventional runways could create real challenges for air traffic controllers.
If that weren’t enough, there’s been limited research as to the safety of all-electric aircraft in more consistent and frequent use. On May 31, 2018, that fact was made tragically clear when an electric plane crashed in Hungary, killing both people on board.
The prototype plane, called the eFusion, was made by Siemens and Magnus, and crashed for unknown reasons, killing both the pilot and passenger. It was performing a test flight when it went down outside of Budapest and had done two laps before it plummeted into a cornfield. A fire also occurred, but it has not been made clear whether that happened before the crash or during.
Magnus said they would ground the eFusion fleet while working to determine the cause of the accident. The eFusion is expected to be commercially available for $200,000.
It’s possible that the crash was not related to the eFusion being an electric airplane, but it raises the question of how companies can sufficiently test the long-term safety of cutting-edge aircraft while trying to be the first to bring the technology to market.
Experts Predict Electric Aviation is Still Years Away
Despite the quickly approaching target dates for delivery set by Uber and others most aviation industry experts are unconvinced that the skies will go silent to the sounds of fossil fuel-powered aircraft any time so soon.
Many experts say that, given the limitations to battery technology, the adjustments that necessarily will be made to current air traffic infrastructure, and the actual aircraft design technology itself, a much more realistic timeline would be 15–20 years before electric aviation goes commercial. It’s a hard figure to predict, though, and one that air travel companies will be fighting hard to reduce.
As for now? Passengers will want to hang on to their noise-canceling headphones.
https://www.uber.com/elevate.pdf (pages 2,3,4,7)